On Being a Noble Savage: Neo-shamanism and Popular Culture
Christopher Drysdale will join Rending the Veil as a columnist beginning in our Ostara issue.
Pasty-skinned, the office-boy who has seen too many days inside the cube-farm slowly makes his way up the mountain path. Trees loom on either side, and he greets each as a new friend, with his eyes if not his voice. In places, the trail is worn by the seasonal runoff that heads to the stream below. The sound of the brook, fast moving in this season, covers the sounds of jets flying overhead, and the sounds of trucks struggling down a nearby highway.
Clattering against his side is a plastic water-bottle. In his backpack is a small rattle, bought at a pow-wow, and a drum bought at an online store. In outward appearances, there is little that resembles his spiritual ancestors who walked this land, and likely the lands of his blood ancestors. What right has he to be called a shaman?
The myth of the Noble Savage runs through most of our popular culture and media, from the famous words that Chief Seattle never spoke, to the “wise old Indian” in Natural Born Killers, to the “wise old Indian” in Thunderheart, to the “wise old Indian” in Poltergeist II. Yet it is not only Native Americans who are subject to this artistic brush: in media it is often a combination of a darker skin color and an assumption that foreigners, rural dwellers, and colonized peoples are somehow more pure and live “closer to the earth.” Their lack of technology is seen as a rejection of our culture rather than lack of access to the means of production.
Media representations of stereotypical “natives” are so pervasive that it would be impossible to tell our stories without them. However, for those who study the “other” in one capacity or another, it is critical to realize that for the most part these supposedly non-Western characters are, in fact, written by Westerners themselves. The “Truths from the Earth” that the characters spout are often created whole-cloth by the Western authors, or at best pre-digested through several Western sources and made more palatable for the Western audience. The “natives” are characters serving a purpose in a Western story, and the final product is one hundred percent Grade-A Western.
The idea of the Noble Savage was originally a European response to the excesses of European colonialism. Early colonialists thought was that the native peoples (who were being massacred or co-opted as forced labor for European profit) were somehow lesser humans. These were the same beliefs that bolstered slavery in America up until the time of the Civil War. Eventually, especially in literature, there was a counter-movement to these ideas. The “Noble Savage” was a cultural construct by the West, projecting their ideas of a “pre-civilized” man who was filled with good manners, wisdom, and knowledge, virtues the writers felt were lost to the West. These beliefs came from the same sources of philosophy and religion that started many of the Utopian movements that helped populate America. At their core was a belief that mankind, left to his own devices, would be more civilized than civilization could make him.
The earliest portrayals of the Noble Savage are representative of a belief that mankind is inherently good, a concept that speaks to Western culture steeped in Christian tradition. The idea of the Noble Savage is an origin myth, a cultural statement about the nature of the world and the place of humans in it. Origin myths are core statements of meaning, loci of interpretation, and bases of authority. They are not just stories, and can encompass anything from the Biblical “Garden of Eden” to the story of the founding of a corporation. Setting aside the bias of Western ideas on what makes a creation myth, they are stories of how things came to be the way they are. And because they are told as stories, there is no need to “prove” their underlying assumptions.
The true Noble Savages are not members of some far-distant tribe in a land unspoiled by Westernization and Globality. Neo-shamans are the true Noble Savages, standing as part of and yet in counterpoint to the frenetic civilization that surrounds them. In a culture caught between Enlightenment notions of what man might become and the cold, hard realities of biology, neo-shamans in particular live in a tension between the spiritual and the physical. The parts of ourselves that we push away become our spiritual guides and help us take part in a deeper, richer version of a whole human being. We become not just members of our culture, but of a longer and deeper tradition of meaningful human life.
Just as non-Westerners are the imagined “other,” so is the world of the spirit. Neither of these ideas are part of our shared everyday life. These two ideas are linked, not in truth, but in our imaginations. With the simple logic of the imagining mind, making connections where it will, both non-Westerners and all things magical are “other,” and so are connected metaphorically. This link is not a new idea, nor a purely Western one. While there is no logical truth to it, in the world of metaphor the magical “other” is a very powerful image. It is further supported by the stories with which we surround ourselves, and there are many stories that tap into this myth. As a lens for truth and cultural understanding, the Noble Savage myth is rotten to the core. But as a lens for looking inward into ourselves, and as a lens for looking at our own culture, this archetype is both powerful and wise.
The people of the Western world, for the most part, no longer sit around hearth-fires in the cold of winter retelling the stories of their people. The fires we sit around are blue lights seen through neighbors’ windows, flickering their own stories at us. We no longer sing as we work; many of us listen to our personal music devices in isolation and outward silence, sitting in front of computers in small, ergonomically designed “cubes.” The communities we create, the myths we retell, seem to be very different from those of long ago. In some ways they are, but at the core they are still much the same. While the names and the faces change, the stories that are told touch on many of the same themes as before. Where they change over time, it reflects our changing views of the world and what it means to be human.
The postmodern world is not only inundated with the interactions of people, but also with all the stories they have to tell. The dominant stories of the West: through novels, movies, and television all, are often new ones reflecting the cultural change that has occurred in the past century-and-a-half of industrialization, or perhaps reach as far back as five centuries to the beginning of the era of the Enlightenment and European colonialism. It was then that the story of what would become the United States of America began. The myth of America is the myth of a new country, a break with the past. The myth of the West, stretching from the Enlightenment, is also that of a break with the past. Neo-shamans more than others, as carriers of the myths of culture and as those who work in relationship with the land, should strive to be aware of its history and, truthfully, prehistory. While the people who live atop the land may have forgotten, the land itself remembers.
If neo-shamans are to have authority to speak, and to have relationships not just with people but with spirits and with the land, then we should know the whole story. Not just the histories of our own people, but of all people, of the animals, and of the land itself. The cultures that thrived on the land and the ways they propitiated its spirits are important, not because we should mimic these rituals ourselves, but because we need to enter into our own relationships with these same spirits. The authority of neo-shamans, just as much as that of the “shamans” in traditional cultures, depends on their relationships with the land and the plants and animals that survive on it. Western neo-shamanism looks different from other “shamanisms,” fits into a different culture, and has different stories and assumptions. Nonetheless, at its root it is not an attempt to mimic other cultures. Western neo-shamanism is ‘its own thing.’
When neo-pagans perform ceremonies honoring Mother Earth, this is not simply a myth from elsewhere, from antiquity. If it were, it would have no relevance to our daily lives. The ritual is expressing something in our culture, and about our culture. Insofar as we attribute these beliefs to the “other,” to the “ancient,” we are challenging models of authority within our culture using authorities from elsewhere — we are writing and accepting new origin myths that express a different truth about who we are as human beings.
Drawing on creation myths, the quintessential origin myths, is a common part of shamanic practice across the world — authority often extends from origins. For an American, “The Way the West was Won” is just as much a creation myth as the “Garden of Eden.” The “Noble Savage” as the ‘pure other’ is an appropriate image for spiritual renewal. Western myths are part of our rich lore: to identify with the “victim” in the myth allows us to reclaim the parts of our own culture which were lost in the dream of “progress.”
Western thought is bound up with concepts of linear time and progress. From the Christian Bible’s “Revelation” to science’s “heat death,” the universe and all things in it are seen as having a beginning and an end. At the same time, most short-term change is seen as “progress” trending from less complex to more complex, from worse to better. Just as computers get faster every year, all change is seen as “progressive” and inherently positive. While science has much to offer, for those who bridge to the world of the spirits, this perspective is not particularly useful. Yet these ideas have become dominant and intertwined with Western thought and knowledge. It is no surprise that those who are called to step away from this perspective might look elsewhere for models of time and space.
As Western thought is tied up with linear time and progress, the non-Western, the “other,” is merged in our minds with all that is not part of the Western stereotype. Attempts to reclaim things lost to the juggernaut of “The West” (a broad generalization) wear the veil of “the other,” and we are quite capable of reworking other belief systems so that they become part of our own culture. This process is not unique to the West: any culture that accepts an idea from another culture changes the idea so that it fits into the matrix of its own culture and lives. Usually, in fact, individuals within a culture change the ideas in many ways, not all of them agreeing with one another.
Neo-shamans live in a world of changed and challenged assumptions, different from the dominant cultural dialogue of positivist science. The practitioners break away from the dialogue limiting the importance of spiritual existence to the afterlife, away from any notions of a transcendent deity. They are, in their very essence, liminal: living in two worlds, or in two perceptions of the world, at the same time. By their very nature, they challenge both the dominant physical and spiritual authorities of our culture, and try to maintain a relationship with the land and with spirits, neither of which are particularly valued by the dominant views. Yet the neo-shaman, as the speaker for that which does not have a voice, is a darling of our myths, of our popular culture. Americans, at least, always root for the underdog.
Neo-shamans speak with the authority of Western myths. They are not some expression of a universal “shaman,” but a part of American culture growing from our own traditions and histories. They are the inheritors of a world of colonialism, of the myth of progress, and of stripped away meaning. Yet they also see something deeper in the world, and are called to do what they do. They are indeed inheritors of duties and responsibilities, whether they have the right to use the word “shaman” or not. Through their nature, and training, they are responsible to both the spirits and their communities.
©2010 by Christopher Drysdale.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.